Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review: eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
with soprano Lucy Shelton
Feb. 21, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

The sextet eighth blackbird, the reigning proponent of contemporary American chamber music, wrapped up this season's concerts in its ongoing residency at the University of Richmond with the second of its “strange imaginary animals” programs sampling works from the group's recent recording of that name (Cedille 094). Guest soprano Lucy Shelton was featured in two song cycles, not on the disc.

Shelton joined the ensemble two years ago in Richmond for the premiere of puppeteer Blair Thomas’ staged version of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” since taken on the road to much acclaim. In this program, she displayed the same gift for dramatic vocalized narrative, and extraordinary emotive and tonal range, in Lukas Foss’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1978) and Roberto Sierra’s “Cancionero Sefardi” (1999).

Foss’ song cycle on Wallace Stevens’ poem is perhaps the most durable of many musical settings of these verses. (eighth blackbird drew its name from the eighth stanza 18 years after this piece was introduced.) Foss' settings are busily colorful, with an elaborate palette of sound effects, the most novel of them produced by applying Japanese bowl gongs and other percussion to the strings of the piano.

Pianist Lucy Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall played this variant of piano four-hands (“pianopercussion,” as the ’birds call it) for maximum timbral effect, but also with deference to Shelton’s treatment and projection of the text. Flute, played by Tim Munro, is more often a duet partner with the voice – almost an alter ego – than a vehicle for predictable bird calls. The singer is doubled, at a split-second's remove, in several key passages by an offstage voice – here, violinist Matt Albert singing in a fluent falsetto.

Sierra’s settings of seven Sephardic folk songs, sung in Ladino, the language of medieval Spanish Jewry, filter the vernacular tradition through a modern but not especially knotty harmonic language. Lute-like Moorish-Arabic effects produced by violin (Albert) and cello (Nicholas Photinos) in "Una matica de ruda” (“A little plant of rue”) and piano in in “El me querido bevio vino” (“My lover drank wine”) are the most immediately striking touches in Sierra’s instrumentation.

Shelton’s treatment of the words and tunes, from the exuberant to the plaintive, was both virtuosic and heartfelt. Her vocalise in "Dolores tiene la reina" ("The queen has pains") was especially bittersweet.

Of the program’s three instrumental pieces, the most emotionally potent was Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez’s “Luciérnagas” (1998), based on Carlos Henriques’ “Luciérnagas en El Mozote,” an account of a visit to a ruined village in El Salvador three years after its inhabitants were massacred by militiamen. Approaching the village, Henriques wrote, “thousands of little lights began to twinkle. The intermittent dance of fireflies illuminated the night, showing us the way to the town’s ruined church. ‘They are the souls of El Mozote!’ said Padre Rogelio Poncel,” the parish priest who survived the attack.

Sanchez-Gutierrez originally scored a ballet scenario based on the death squads that ravaged El Salvador during its civil war in the 1970s and ’80s, then was inspired by the story of El Mozote to write this more compact piece for piano, percussion, violin, cello and clarinet.

Its firefly effects – subtly pointed high-register figures darting among the instruments – give way to a flashback, representing the violence inflicted upon the villagers in harsh chords, slashing attacks and thunderous percussion interjections. Pianist Kaplan, percussionist Duvall, violinist Albert, cellist Photinos and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri rode the work’s sonic currents with requisite wildness but also with ears cocked for its rich atmospherics and emotions attuned to its tragic narrative.

David M. Gordon’s “Friction Systems” (2002/2005), the program’s sole item from the new album, is a tonal punch to the solar plexus, driven by a heavy, grinding, Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-musique concrète riff rooted in the piano and a broader motif for strings and winds recalling the Dies Irae, the medieval chant for the dead. Gordon supplements standard instruments with toy piano and exotica such as whirling musical tubes, and banishes string vibrato to maintain the music’s rawness.

The program’s opener, Franco Donatoni’s “Arpège” (1986),
is a deconstruction of the arpeggio marked by sharp attacks, abrupt cutoffs and kaleidoscopic colors. A substantial cello cadenza, played almost romantically by Photinos, is a sensual interlude in an otherwise brainy, brittle opus.